There's one reason why you need to put an Amazon River cruise at the top of your travel wish list: the region's amazing biodiversity. The Amazon, the world's second-longest river, cuts a path across the continent of South America as it makes it way through Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. More than a third of the world's animal species live in this vast river basin's rainforest. A cruise along this mighty river will introduce you to squirrel-size tamarin monkeys, three-toed sloths, monk saki monkeys, scarlet macaws, Amazon River dolphins, Amazonian manatees, giant otters, anacondas, caimans, bull sharks, piranhas, electric eels, jaguars, and much more. And if wildlife encounters aren't enough, you'll also visit villages deep in the heart of the forest where few outsiders venture.
While the river covers a great distance, the most popular segment for cruise exploration is in Peru's Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. About 100 miles southwest of Iquitos, it's known for its "Mirrored Forest" that floods each year during the rainy season. The reserve encompasses three river basins—the Pacaya, Samiria, and Yanayacu-Pucate—and there is much to explore here, including lakes and canals that are home to an incredibly diverse array of flora and fauna. Here are five top Amazon River cruises for your consideration.
Upper Amazon with Lindblad-National Geographic
10 days aboard the 28-passenger Delfin II
Itinerary: Iquitos to Nauta, exploring the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve
The hook: Lindblad employs some of the best expedition leaders in the business. On this tour, an experienced naturalist, who is also a certified photo instructor, joins the team leader.
Price: Starting at $5,990 per person
Amazon Riverboat Adventure with G Adventures
9 days aboard the 32-passenger Queen Violeta
Itinerary: Iquitos round-trip, exploring the Amazon, Maranon, and Ucayali rivers in addition to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve
The hook: You'll actually get to meet locals, like the village shaman, and take part in activities such as piranha fishing.
Price: Starting at $2,124 per person
Amazon River Cruise with Smithsonian Journeys
10 days aboard the 30-passenger La Estrella Amazonica
Itinerary: Iquitos round-trip, exploring the Amazon, Ucayali, and Maranon rivers in addition to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve
The hook: Smithsonian Journeys offers an optional six-night, post-cruise adventure to Cusco in Peru's Urubamba Valley, the heart of the Inca Empire and the site of UNESCO World Heritage Site Machu Picchu.
Price: Starting at $4,695 per person
From the Inca Empire to the Peruvian Amazon with Avalon Waterways
11-day tour with three days aboard the 32-passenger Aria
Itinerary: Iquitos round-trip (cruise portion)
The hook: This is a combination tour that includes an overland trip to visit sights in Peru such as Lima, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and Cusco, plus a three-night Amazon River cruise through the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.
Price: Starting at $5,999 per person
Caribbean Isles & Amazon with Seabourn
15 days aboard 450-passenger Seabourn Quest
Itinerary: Fort Lauderdale to Manaus, Brazil
The hook: This luxury cruise ship—much larger than the other ships sailing the Amazon—focuses its exploration on the Brazilian portion of the river, from Curua Una to Santarem to Parintins to Manaus.
Price: Starting at $5,999 per person.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodor’s, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, and other websites and magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.